The Calgary Catholic School Board should delay no longer. It should reverse its illogical stance against vaccinating female students for genital human papillomavirus (HPV) and accept that the benefits far outweigh the risks, that the vaccine does not promote promiscuity, but saves lives, as well as preventing unnecessary pain and suffering.
There could be no more compelling a case in favour of the vaccine than that of Audrey Farrier, a University of Calgary lecturer. She contracted the sexually transmitted virus after she was raped as a teen, and went on to develop cervical cancer as an adult. She gave birth to two premature babies because she could not carry her pregnancies to term. Both sons suffered from lifelong health complications, including kidney and lung disease. One child went to 121 medical appointments in the first year of his life. Ms. Farrier has undergone reconstructive surgery on her pelvis using donor tissue. “It has been humiliating. My life has been devastated by HPV,” she said at a news conference on Tuesday organized by HPV Calgary, a citizens’ group. “If it can happen to me, it can happen to you.”
Calgary’s Catholic school board, which opposed the vaccine in 2008 with the support of Bishop Fred Henry, needs to show leadership and accept the medical evidence in favour of inoculating Grade 5 girls. It appears to be heading in that direction, and is to be credited for at least agreeing to review its earlier ban and consult with parents. There is no justification for a further delay. The Catholic boards in Yellowknife, the Ontario region of Halton and other school districts in central and south Alberta which have opposed the vaccine should also reverse their position. The vaccine uptake rate needs to be high for it to be effective.
The agony of cervical cancer cannot be overstated. Rose Penlington, another Calgarian who contracted HPV from her unfaithful husband, had to have a radical hysterectomy and part of her bowel removed. She suffered from a heart attack at 42, and now has a colostomy bag. “This hungry beast does not discriminate on the basis of age, gender or religion,” she said on Tuesday. “Through the gift of the HPV vaccine we can stop this virus.”
Dr. Jon Meddings, dean of the University of Calgary Medical School, noted that the virus is rampant and can sit dormant for many years. He believes the HPV vaccine has the ability to transform lives. The moral decision is clear. While there is no turning back the clock for Ms. Farrier and Ms. Penlington, their experiences are powerful cautionary tales.